After a quick drive around Dashoguz downtown we’ll stock for food at the lively central bazaar and start our adventure across the mythical sands of the Karakum Desert heading towards the most famous natural sight in the country: the Darwaza Gas Crater.
En-route we stop at Izmukshir and Shassenem medieval fortresses, which used to be some of the largest outposts of Southern Khoresm along the caravan road from Khiva to Nissa.
We’ll reach Darwaza in the early afternoon: the burning crater is also known as “The Gates to Hell“, being indeed quite reminiscent of the entrance to Dante’s Inferno.
While drilling in 1971, Soviet geologists tapped into a cavern filled with natural gas; the ground beneath the drilling rig collapsed, leaving a large and deep hole behind: to avoid poisonous gas discharge, it was decided to burn it off; geologists had hoped the fire would use all the fuel in a matter of days, but the gas is still burning today.
In the evening we’ll admire the spectacular and fascinating view of the glowing gas crater and enjoy a shashlik dinner on its edge.
Overnight in top-quality tents (provide by us) at Darwaza Camping Site.
Among the towering shapes, imposing statues and futuristic atmospheres of the city we’ll also be able to find some good old Soviet charm, dusty narrow alleys, crumbling XIX-century Russian houses and lively bazaars, reminding us that even under the shadow of a postmodernist totalitarianism we still are in the good old Soviet Central Asia .
We’ll spend two days touring Ashgabat , the surreal capital of the country, a brave new world made of marble skyscrapers and totalitarian monuments.
Meet-and-greet at Ashgabat International Airport , transfer to our hotel of choice in central Ashgabat and introductory briefing about the region, the route and the set of rules to observe while travelling in Turkmenistan .
In the later afternoon we’ll then board the return flight to Ashgabat to continue our tour to the Wild West of the country.
We’ll spend the entire day touring the legendary sights and historical landmarks of Merv and its surrounding areas such as the towering medieval kalas (fortresses), the splendidly preserved Islamic mausoleums, the rickety minarets of some of the earliest mosques of the region and the odd Sufi shrines scattered all around the site.
Merv was once famous as the Queen of the World and it has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1999.
After a quick visit to the sleepy and archetypically Soviet downtown of Mary , we’ll tour the stunningly preserved ruins of ancient Merv , formerly known as Alexandria Margiana .
In the morning we’ll leave the steel-glass-and-concrete cityscapes of Ashgabat and fly to Mary , an oasis town located on the edges of the Karakum Desert along the road to Bukhara , the world-famous silk-road city of neighbouring Uzbekistan .
After a rejuvenating bath at Kow Ata , we’ll move on to remote Nokhur , a picturesque village famous for the unique culture and peculiar language of its inhabitants.
We’ll first stop at the village of Geokdepe to visit the incongruously large French -built Saparmurat Haji Mosque and then continue to Kow Ata , a natural underground thermal lake and a popular weekend escapade among the busy citizens of Ashgabat , who flock here to benefit from the therapeutic attributes of the holy waters.
In the morning we’ll leave the steel-glass-and-concrete cityscapes of Ashgabat and head towards the barren Kopet Dag mountains.
We’ll take a detour up to Kara-Kala , a remote little town built along the fast-flowing Sumbar river, before eventually descending again to the plains towards Balkanabat , a quintessentially Soviet city lost in the barren badlands of western Turkmenistan .
Early in the morning we’ll enjoy a cultural tour around Nokhur and then continue to Serdar , a rather anonymous and yet surprisingly pleasant Turkmen backcountry town, and the starting point to visit the secluded hamlets of the Hasardag Mountains .
If time permits, we’ll also visit the dystopian badlands surrounding the Garabogazköl depression, a shallow lagoon bordering Kazakhstan dotted with semi-abandoned Soviet towns and rusty remnants of a bygone era.
Once in Turkmenbashi , we’ll enjoy a short seaside languid vacation chilling and sunbathing at the melancholic Caspian beaches, observing local fishermen catching their dinner, touring the lively seafood market and savouring the gaudy delights of the Pyongyang-meets-Las-Vegas Awaza resort area.
In the afternoon we’ll finally reach the major seaside town of Turkmenbashi , the country’s own answer to Cancun .
With the postcard views of the canyon still sparkling in our eyes, we’ll continue our trip to the shores of the Caspian Sea , stopping at the awe-inspiring pilgrimage site of Gözli Ata along the way.
We’ll depart from Balkanabat early in the morning and head to the Yangykala Canyon , a stunningly wide geological landscape that has nothing to envy to its more famous counterpart in Colorado: with bands of pink, red and yellow rock searing across the sides of steep walls, Yangykala is a breathtaking sight and one of the most spectacular natural attractions in Central Asia .
In the late afternoon we’ll get back to Dashoguz for some well-deserved rest at our hotel and/or tea-and-candies pleasures at a local teahouse.
We’ll devote the whole day to the exploration of this epic Silk Road town, visiting its many architectural and historic wonders and some truly offbeat sights from the Tsarist and Soviet periods.
Dashoguz is the main gateway to access the ancient city of Konye-Urgench , known as Khorezm in medieval times.
In the morning we’ll board our domestic flight to Dashoguz , a sleepy frontier town with a colourful mixed demography of Turkmens, Uzbeks, Koreans and Tatars.